Nine TV Shows That I've Pitched
I've pitched a lot of TV shows in the past two decades. None of them became shows but I learned a huge amount while doing the pitches or bootstrapping the ideas.
I did this as a "web show" (which maybe would now be called a podcast or youtube series, etc) for HBO from 1996 through 1998.
It's basically, what's going on in NYC at 3 in the morning on a Tuesday or Wednesday night?
I basically found out - if you are out at 3 in the morning on a Wednesday night - something not-so-good is probably happening.
Ultimately we shot this as a one hour show for HBO. HBO said, "for material like this we need to either show your neighbors f8ckng or someone shooting their mother while naked." So they said no.
I learned so much when working on this. I probably interviewed over 500 people over 2.5 years so I learned to interview.
Also, I shot the documentary with award winning documentary maker Jon Alpert and learned a huge amount. I am actually trying to find the video we made. I should call Jon today!
The main thing he told me is: "nobody wants to watch talking heads. Don't interview anyone. Have a story with a lot of action."
For me, the most moving part of the show we shot was when we went back and forth to the Riker's Island jail at 3am. There's one bus that goes back and forth taking prisoners who are bailed out or parents who are bailing out.
At the stop in Queens was all the prostitites, pimps, and drug dealers waiting for their customers.
And at the jail some weird things happend. And the bus driver was a character. Spent a lot of time at that spot getting ready.
2. Blind Date
A friend of mine (a woman) posted (old-school style) in "The Village Voice" personals section to go on a date.
To everyone who responded, she would pick the restaurant. We wired up the restaurant beforehand to videotape the date.
Pitched it to HBO Independent Productions (they produce HBO-style shows for broadcast networks). They loved it but it got moved over to another department that thought it was too "mean". this was in 1998 before mean was taken to a whole new level in reality tv.
We shot two dates and the results were fascinating.
3. Fox Business, no name show
Met with the heads of Fox Business before they launched their network in 2007. They told me I could do any show they wanted but I said "no". I had just sold a company to thestreet.com which was more aligned with CNBC (through Jim Cramer) and I didn't want to mess that relationship up.
4. Gurus Gone Wild
After this article came out about me in the NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/07/fashion/james-altucher-self-help-guru.html
(front page of the Sunday fashion section no less, as I like to remind my kids)
Spielberg's company called me and said they wanted to do a TV show based on that article.
I pitched them an idea: "Gurus Gone Wild", a show about self-help gurus and what really goes on with these people behind the scenes. FIctional, like a sitcom.
They said, "We want to do a sitcom about your life."
So they said "no" to Gurus Gone Wild and the next one.
It was worth it though just to hear Tim Dillon on my podcast say, "You HAVE to do that show."
5. Marvelous Mrs. Maisel meets Hedge fund managers
Concept: a hedge fund manager billionaire hates being a hedge fund manager and wants to be a standup comedian.
Wrote the script. The idea was that his life would be falling apart while he pursued his dreams.
They didn't like it. I actually didn't know about Marvelous Mrs. Maisel at the time and they thought it was too close even though I insisted it wasn't.
6. Their idea. POST-MINIMAL
Spielberg's group found a well-known TV writer who liked my story.
He came to me with the idea, "your main character is an extreme minimalist who Airbnbs to avoid owning anything. But let's start the story when he STOPS doing that and has to return to 'normal life' ".
I liked it a lot. Spielberg's team liked it.
But he was under contract with Sony and so everyone needed Sony's permission, which they did not give. I think the writer and Sony didn't like each other and they were just trying to ruin his career.
7. EXTREME AIRBNB
When I was pitching ideas to Spielberg (and the next ideas as well below), I was working with an agent who was a mega-agent in the reality space. I learned a lot from him.
He told me the best shows keep the format super simple. He said "House Hunters" is the most syndicated international show.
The format: every episode a couple looks at an expensive home and a not expensive home and makes a choice. BOOM!
So I pitched an idea straight to Airbnb called "Extreme Airbnb".
For each city, a comedian and his or her friends, stay in the most expensive Airbnb in that city and the cheapest Airbnb in that city.
I pitched it to one of the founders of Airbnb and he seemed interested but it sort of drifted off and I started other things.
As part of it, I was booking myself to stay in tents in the Bronx, etc in NYC but never really followed up on the idea (as happens with most ideas).
My insight here is that any website with a lot of traffic can behave like a TV network.
Netflix was simply a site with a lot of traffic (albeit renting videos so in the media space).
So part of my pitch to Airbnb is that they also are like a network and can create content like any other network.
8. I WILL MAKE YOU A MILLIONAIRE
I take 10 random people and make them all millionaires in a year.
My agent loved it (simple format, huge stakes) and set me up with the biggest reality show production company. Everyone felt this would be bigger than "The Profit" or "Shark Tank" which were the shows I viewed as competition.
We started interviewing "contestants" and we met with every major tv company (Netflix, ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, Amazon, etc etc)
Everyone said "no". The main response was, "What if he can't do it?" They would have to risk a million dollars or so before they even knew if the show would work.
At one meeting with [major TV company], my agent walked out mid meeting and said, "you guys keep asking me for something out of the box and this is it. You're dinoasaurs if you don't take it." But they didn't take it
And I was glad at the end nobody wanted it. It felt like it was going to be WAY too much work and I wasn't sure about the one year timeline (they actually wanted me to make it six months).
I was very impressed with all of the people I worked with and this was the most I had worked on a pitch since "III:am". But it was a surprise to me when nobody picked it up so it left a bad taste in my mouth for the entire industry.
9. DAILY SHOW MEETS FINANCE
With the same reality show production company. I would be like a Jon Stewart but it would just be about finance news and how ridiculous everything is.
Like yesterday when Bill Ackman insisted we have to start sending American 18 year olds into Ukraine but nobody asked him if he'd volunteer to go.
Or how we have "sanctions" on Russia but only "select banks". I think most Russian banks can still go through SWIFT and Russian planes can still fly over American airspace.
Or, on a personal note, I chose not to invest in a "reusable period underwear" company (I had some issues about the management) and now I just saw Kimberly Clark is investing big in them. I would analyze what I maybe did wrong (or right).
10. WHAT I LEARNED: CHOOSE YOURSELF
What I ultimately learned: don't pitch TV shows. It's a sucky business. Hard work. Most people have no clue what they are doing and it's hard to make money unless you go huge right away.
But Choose Yourself! and do the show yourself on YouTube or a podcast or wherever.
My podcast has more downloads than the viewership of about 90% of CNBC's shows. But there's this allure to TV that sometimes blinds people.
11. SIDENOTE: Billions
I did work as an advisor on the Showtime show, "Billions" and learned a lot about the writing of scripts.